Hundreds of demonstrators marched through central Phnom Penh yesterday morning calling for a controversial refugee resettlement deal between Australia and Cambodia to be scrapped.
While the protesters echoed human rights concerns that have been repeatedly made about the scheme, an undercurrent of xenophobia was also present.
After calling on the US Embassy, the Council of Ministers, the EU delegation and the National Assembly bearing petitions, the diverse group of monks, students, land rights activists and NGO workers eventually set up camp in front of the Australian Embassy.
Impassioned speeches continued there well into the afternoon.
Protest organiser Mao Pises, head of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, which counts 2,000 members, said that in addition to concerns about the refugees’ welfare, young people feared that they would take jobs.
“There are many Cambodian youth who graduate and they cannot find a job. They have to migrate to work in Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea … So too many thousands of people migrate to find work outside, so how can they accommodate those refugees and find work for them?” he said.
“We feel that when [the refugees] come to Cambodia they will just compete and get the jobs which are very rare for Cambodian people already.”
A 31-year-old who said his name was “Tommy Angkor” ran shirtless around the protest clutching fake $100 bills representing the $35 million in extra aid that Australia is paying Cambodia as part of the arrangement. “No refugees” was scrawled on his back in red ink.
He also clutched a sign at one point that said “Cambodians are not aborigines”, but did not explain what he meant by this when asked by reporters.
“We don’t know who they are. They could be terrorists, they could cause many crimes, even if there are not many of them,” he said of the refugees.
The protest was supported by some refugee rights groups in Australia, which co-signed a statement “in solidarity with Cambodian civil society organisations”.
Their backing was evident in some of the signs carried by Cambodian marchers.
“Cambodia is not Terra Nullius,” one sign said, referencing a legal term meaning “land that belongs to no-one” that was used during European settlement in Australia.
The two women holding it gave blank stares when asked who wrote it.
Cambodian officials will soon depart to Nauru to enlist refugees who want to take part in the “voluntary” scheme. The government has indicated it will take far less than the 1,000 refugees initially expected of the deal, but many on Nauru have said they will not choose to come here.
The Ministry of Interior could not be reached yesterday and the Australian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.